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Sunday, April 26, 2009


Andy discusses "It's Nearly Africa"

Song of the Week -- Andy's take

Part of an ongoing series of interviews by Todd Bernhardt with Andy Partridge about the songs we feature each week on MySpace. This week's song, "It's Nearly Africa," is from 1982's English Settlement.

Thom Flyer of "powerpop misfits" The Gresham Flyers, wins the "guess the next song" contest this week. Well done, man! We'll be back in two weeks with an interview about one of XTC's more nostalgic songs.

TB: Let's talk about "It's Nearly Africa." This one has quite a different feel to most of your previous songs.

AP: I was sat strumming this one today, and I thought, "Christ, this is a really old-fashioned sort of swing melody." [sings big-band/swing style version of verse] Then it goes to major [sings some more, emphasizing the accents that would be in such an arrangement]. It's so swing-time!

TB: [laughing] Yeah, you can easily imagine where all the horn stabs would be!

AP: You can hear the whole arrangement!

TB: There you go -- it's one of the first things you can do when you do your solo album!

AP: [laughs] Yeah, I'm gonna have to -- who did those swing version a couple years ago of those rock songs? Can't think of his name -- he did "Black Hole Sun," and "Smells Like Teen Spirit"-- I mean, they weren't great songs to pick, but they worked in a sort of grungy way.

TB: Paul Anka, I think?

AP: Paul Anka, there you go.

TB: You told me on another call that you had found some alternate lyrics for this song, so I wanted to ask about that.

AP: The genesis of this song is, it's two songs kind of smashed together, with some new bits. There was a song from 1978 -- which we were actually rehearsing at soundchecks, at gigs and stuff -- called "Jazz Love." All I can remember about the chorus was that it was, [sings] "Jazz love, Jazz love, Jazz love, drum and wire."

TB: Is that where you got the title for that album?

AP: I think the title for the album eventually came from that, yeah. Then, there was another song called "Primitive Now," which I think was from the same time. Let me look in this notebook here. It's amazing when some of this stuff was written -- it's not in the order you'd think it might be.

Here we go -- it's called "Primitive Now," and if I read it to you, you'll hear where some of the words were taken from. "The car you've built is nearing disaster / You human beans need to be eaten even faster / It's a pity you gave the wheel to / the fat man driving is the same god that you kneel to / All you need is a dose of / Primitive now / I will demand and I will shout / Primitive now / So Peter pull the plug out / Primitive now / I want to break my cable / And all you cavemen need a dose of / Primitive now / Your super speedboat just won't be docking / Your film-fed face is feeling fat from all the shocking" -- and then it runs out. I obviously didn't think it was going anywhere. But I used portions of it -- you can hear certain lines, and a sentiment as well.

TB: Did you have music to go along with that, or did you just have the lyrics?

AP: Do you know, I can't remember! Some of the chords from "Jazz Love" ended up in "It's Nearly Africa," but quite a chunk of the sentiment and some of the couplets of "Primitive Now" became that song.

"Primitive Now" was written just after "Rocket from a Bottle" and just before "When You're Near Me I Have Difficulty."

TB: I didn't realize you wrote "Rocket from a Bottle" that early. You wrote that in the group of Drums and Wires songs, but it made it on to Black Sea.

AP: Yeah. [laughs] I didn't realize it until I just looked in my notebook, either!

TB: When did the song "It's Nearly Africa" all fall together?

AP: It was during the rehearsals for English Settlement. I remember bringing it up, and working on it at home, but I cannot remember rehearsing it. And we must have rehearsed it, because there are several little bits that are quite syncopated, but I have no memory of rehearsing it. Perhaps we just ran through it a couple of times as a "maybe" -- you know, maybe we'll do it, maybe we won't.

TB: Did you guys ever intend on playing this live?

AP: I don't think we ever did ever play it live, but I would have liked to. Terry and I spoke at some length about me doing some drumming -- so, we would have had two drum kits, and this one would have been a candidate for us to play together. I wouldn't be able to do my feet -- I'd leave that to him -- but I could do something reasonably simple with my hands, and sing it. Because the guitar is so quiet and minimal on the album version that we didn't think it'd be missed live -- just do it with keyboard, bass and two drumsets.

TB: I guess I could see that. Plus, the guitar part is very rhythmic as it is.

AP: It is very rhythmic. In fact, it's not even plugged in -- it's just an electric guitar with a microphone near the strings.

TB: Oh, I didn't realize you were doing that trick. I thought you were actually playing an acoustic guitar on this.

AP: No, it's an electric guitar. If you listen, that's why it sounds so thin -- it's just a microphone about an inch away from the strings.

TB: Was this a song you guys tracked separately, or did you play it together?

AP: In rehearsal, we must have played it together. But you know how I've said that Terry would sometimes say, "Oh, I just want to do it with Partsy," or whatever? On this one, Terry didn't want anyone to play with him.

TB: Because all he wanted to do was get into that groove, right?

AP: He wanted to sit down, get into the groove, and just cycle around until we'd come on the talkback and say, "I think we've got enough now." Sometimes music would throw him. He'd get into this [chuckles] Zen place, and he'd just have to lock into the cycle, and if there was music with changes, sometimes that would genuinely throw him.

TB: Well sure, I could see how it could be a distraction -- if you only wanted to do one thing, but you heard other musicians, you might want to have some interplay with them.

AP: Yeah, you might want to change, and then go around them, and you'd get out of that Zen of just playing that cycle around and round and round.

So, he just went into the stone room at The Manor -- by the time we were doing English Settlement, they'd built a stone room like the one they had at The Townhouse -- and said, "Count me in, I'll do it, and you stop me when you've got enough."

TB: And that was with no click track, no metronome, nothing?

AP: No, no click track. He just played. We just counted him in, and away he went!

TB: Amazing. When I play along with this song, it's a challenge to me not because I can't play the pattern -- I can -- but doing the same pattern, very regularly, with a good feel, for five minutes, is very hard. So, there's something to be said for that.

AP: We obviously didn't know how to end it, because if you listen to it, Terry just gets buttoned out on the mixing desk. The weird thing is, nobody thought -- including [co-producer] Hugh Padgham! -- to put any reverb on the drums, so when they button him out, he just goes dead. If we had thought about it, it would have had a little bit of reverb tail, so when you button him out, there's still a little something left over. But no, he was just buttoned out on the desk, so obviously we didn't know how to end it, and this is why my memory of rehearsing it is very hazy -- maybe we just ran through it a couple of times, you know?

TB: So you and Dave and Colin would have then done your parts separately?

AP: I think I had to do mine separately because of the nature of recording the guitar the way we did. Because the microphone had to be turned up way high to pick up the quiet electric strings, I couldn't have a big bass amp booming near me, or keyboards down an amp. So I've got a feeling we probably did it separately.

TB: You say you weren't plugged in, but in the intro to the "rap part," it seems like there's an electric guitar that comes in and introduces it.

AP: I think that's a very distorted vocal, not a guitar. Play it, and you'll hear.

TB: [fires up CD, plays that part] Oh! I never realized. Now that you say that, it's obvious.

AP: Yeah, it's so distorted -- we really cranked it up.

TB: So, tell me about the "marimba."

AP: [laughs] The electric marimba, yes. We'd bought ourselves a Prophet-5 keyboard. I think it was five-note polyphonic, which was a real luxury in those days. You could sit and build sounds with it. I used to bring it home -- I had a little gray exercise book with blue binding around the edges, and I used to sit and do all the settings, and make up these sounds. I made this marimba / log drum kind of sound.

TB: Really? So that wasn't a pre-set patch -- you built that?

AP: I built that, yeah. You know, you'd play around and find something you like, then hit "save." I'd write down all the settings in the book -- I was basically teaching myself the principles of ADSR. If I found any great sounds, I'd save them, and bring them up in rehearsal or bring them up in the studio, and say, "Look, check this sound out -- could we use this on anything?"

When Dave heard it, it was like, "Ooh! That'll be great. I don't need to play another guitar or anything -- just let me play that."

TB: So, you creating the sound is what drove the part?

AP: I think when Dave heard the sound, it was a matter of, "Let's use that and the drums and bass." As you can hear, the guitar is not all that important, although it does gently suggest the chords. It's just so thin -- it's almost like a tuned shaker or something.

TB: So, how long did take for Dave to work out that part? It sounds relatively complicated.

AP: We ran through it a couple of times at rehearsals, I think, but maybe he then took it home -- he'd take the Prophet with him, if he wanted to rehearse something specifically. He may correct me on this, but I seem to remember that when he heard that sound, it was a matter of, "Great, let's use that sound with the drums."

TB: Anything else you remember about the keyboard part?

AP: Because of the nature of the sound, it really does pictorially suggest "primitive" -- or Africa, to be geographical about it. Although it doesn't have to be Africa -- it's just a primitive state of mind I'm talking about.

TB: Had you created the sound with this song in mind, or just created it on its own?

AP: I probably created the sound on its own. I just used to sit and make sounds, and then save them, and then say, "Right, let me note down what bank that is, and where that is, and let's remember that sound, we could use that for whatever." I also remember sitting and messing around, making things like dozens and dozens of Sci-Fi sounds, and then writing them down in the notebook. Things like "laser blast" or "door opening." You know, I just make sounds like [mimics single descending note] -- I just make all these goofy space noises, and say, "Yeah! I've got to use these one day!" [laughs] It was the thrill of being able to build sounds.

TB: Oh, sure. It was a new toy.

AP: Yeah. And for some reason, I got much more into doing it with the Prophet than I did with the little Korg we had. But you couldn't save the Korg sounds -- you had to re-find them.

TB: Which is why you got in the habit of writing everything down, no doubt.

AP: Exactly.

TB: How about the bass part? Was that something you suggested to Colin, or something he worked out on his own?

AP: He would have worked it out, I think.

TB: There's no demo of this song, is there?

AP: Not that I know of. But saying that, you never know. Dave or Colin might come up and say, "Oh yeah, I have a cassette of us rehearsing that."

TB: But not a demo that you brought to the band?

AP: Oh, no. There were very few demos at this point of anything. I would just usually bring up a song with a guitar and just sort of stamp my foot and say, "It goes like this." At best, a demo would be myself and my little Hammond organ drum box -- that was a luxury demo. A little mono cassette, set off the little bonky box going along, and I'd strum along with it, and that was a multi-track luxury demo! [chuckles]

TB: The slides and other things Colin does on the song are really great.

AP: He's very melodic on this, especially through the choruses [mimics bass part] -- don't know how you're going to write that. I'm going to sound like Bing Crosby if you write that out! Ba-ba-ba ba-ba-ba bom! [laughs]

TB: [laughing] Let's talk about your parts a bit -- you talked about your guitar already, but how about your sax swing solo?

AP: [laughs] Oh, what a fool I was! I wanted to be Charlie Parker. I thought, "Yep, if I just go and get myself an alto saxophone" -- I'd gotten some money from somewhere, maybe I sold something -- "and within about a week, give it two at the most, I can be Charlie Parker."

My god, I had it for months and months and months and the best I could come up with was this kind of being "being attacked by sexed-up geese in Lagos" sound. [laughs]

TB: [laughing] Well, for a song called "It's Nearly Africa," you could do worse!

AP: "It's Nearly Quackrifa"! I just couldn't do it.

TB: But at the same time, weren't you going for that type of "traffic jam in Lagos" feel and sound in this song?

AP: [sighs] Yeah, I think so. I think it was part of that whole miserable alto-sax interlude in my life. The best it ever was, was the little honky brass section on "Funk Pop a Roll." That was the best I ever got. But I had something to prove, I guess. I thought, "Well, I can't play fluid runs, but I can honk in time, so give me a couple of tracks." I honked a couple of things in time, on offbeats and stuff, and you end up with this quite nicely rhythmic push-pull thing.

TB: How many tracks did you do on this -- do you remember?

AP: I can't remember -- at least two. If you listen, there may be more. I'm also adding in some vocal whoops and stuff. It's just a big goosey rhythm-fest. [chuckles] The rest of the band must have been pissing themselves with laughter at me trying to wrestle with this little oil refinery in my mouth.

TB: Going back to the lyrics, I wanted to ask about the little Rap part. You do it on this song, and you do something similar on "Melt the Guns," and I wondered what influenced you to do that kind of thing on this album.

AP: Do you know, I've never thought about it! You're right, but I just don't know. Maybe it was the fact that Dave had a couple of early Rap things that he liked a lot. He'd play them at soundchecks and stuff, and in the studio. "Rapper's Delight" was one of them. That came out in the late '70s, I think. Maybe I just heard too much of that, and thought I could do something like it!

TB: Some of it plays with your natural inclination to be very rhythmic in your vocals.

AP: Though, on "It's Nearly Africa," it's not quite speech, is it. Because there are notes involved with the part -- it's almost Scat rather than Rap. But don't get me on to Scat, because I'd love to do Scat records, I really would. If there's one thing I can do reasonably well, it's Scat sing, but I've never really done it on record.

TB: Well, I have an EP with you guys playing live and jamming on the progression of "Scissor Man" -- you call the track "Cut It Out" -- and you seem to do a fair amount on that.

AP: Sure, yeah. That was more like percussive self-dubbery, like "All Along the Watchtower." I wouldn't call that Scat. That's more the human-horn thing.

TB: So, back to the lyric. What are you getting at here?

AP: [laughs] [spot-on New York accent] "What the fuck is this song about, Andy? You fucking crazy nutjob!"

It's really not about Africa! It's about reclaiming lost innocence -- it's the impossible dream, isn't it? It's Eden. Once you've fallen from the Garden -- which was going to be the title of Mummer, by the way -- you can't go back. But wouldn't it be nice to go back? This is what human beings dream of -- they dream of being in Eden, they dream of naivety, they dream of innocence, they dream of being in the womb, they dream of the Golden Age.

It's not a fantasy -- it's something we've all experienced -- but where people get it wrong is, it's never outside of a person. It's only inside a person. I don't think there has been a society that has really lived beautifully or unviolently or whatever.

It's me saying wouldn't it be nice to get back to a primitive place. You know, "unplug future plans" -- you don't need the electricity, the speed, the TVs.

TB: It's interesting to hear you say this, because I got that when I was looking at the lyrics, the other undercurrent I always detected -- and maybe you never intended this -- was you sitting in your sackcloth and ashes, and saying, "This is going to happen if you're not careful, human beings!" It's kind of a prophecy -- that we're rushing toward disaster.

AP: Oh yeah, the disaster is going to be made by the technology. We're going to end up in a primitive state, [chuckles] but not the one we want!

TB: So, you did intend that as well.

AP: Yeah, sure. Disaster's on its way because everything's going too fast. We are eating up the resources -- it's all too fast, too crazy, too much. We're draining it all, and we're filling ourselves full of useless shit. And part of me is being romantic, and saying, "Wouldn't it be nice to get back to that?", but unfortunately it is going to back to that, but not for the right reasons.

I'm not trying to say that Africa is some wonderland, because they can be just as corrupt as everyone else, and certainly as violent.

TB: And there are certain modern amenities that are nice! I like indoor plumbing!

AP: [laughs] Yeah, exactly!

But I think it was just a case of wanting to slow down. I think it's also an outgrowth of me getting tired of touring. I wanted to be quiet. I wanted to unplug stuff.

It's a mixture of all these things. And like I say, I'm not being romantic about Africa as a geographical place. It's more the sentiment of, wouldn't it be nice to a simple life back again.

TB: One of the things I like about the lyrics is the "shake your bag of bones" pun.

AP: Yeah, that's dancing.

TB: It's euphemism for the body, but it's also a talisman that a medicine man could have.

AP: Exactly -- like a shaman or witch doctor would have his magical bag of bones. But it's also saying, "C'mon, dance along to this."

10:24 PM

©2009 by Todd Bernhardt and Andy Partridge. All Rights Reserved.